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Scientific Revolution

This article is about the period in history, not the process of scientific progress via revolution, proposed by Thomas Kuhn and discussed at paradigm shift

The Scientific Revolution is the name given by historians of science to the period that roughly began with the discoveries of Kepler, Galileo, and others at the dawn of the 17th century, and ended with the publication of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687 by Isaac Newton. These boundaries are not uncontroversial, with some claiming that the proper start of the Scientific Revolution was the publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543, while others wish to extend it into the 18th century. Nevertheless, the basic themes of the revolution are readily recognised.

The seventeenth century was a period of major scientific change. But even so there were no 'scientists' at this time, even Newton was a natural philosopher. Not only were there major theoretical and experimental developments, but even more importantly, the way in which scientists worked was radically changed. At the beginning of the century, science was highly Aristotelian; at its end, science was mathematical, mechanical and empirical.

In fact, according to the modern definition of the term science, true science itself did not exist until about the 19th century.

Table of contents
1 Theoretical developments
2 Experimental developments
3 Methodological developments
4 Literary criticisms
5 References

Theoretical developments

In 1543 Copernicus' work on the Heliocentric model of the solar system was published, in which he tried to prove that the sun was the centre of the universe. For almost two millennia, the Geocentric model had been accepted by all but a few astronomers. The idea that the earth moved around the sun, as advocated by Copernicus, was to most of his contemporaries preposterous. It contradicted not only the virtually unquestioned Aristotelian philosophy, but also common sense. For suppose the earth turns about its own axis. Then, surely, if we were to drop a stone from a high tower, the earth would rotate beneath it while it fell, thus causing the stone to land some space away from the tower's bottom. This effect is not observed.

It is no wonder, then, that although some astronomers used the Copernican system to calculate the movement of the planets, only a handful actually accepted it as true theory. It took the efforts of two men, Johannes Kepler and Galileo, to give it credibility. Kepler was a brilliant astronomer who, using the very accurate observations of Tycho Brahe, realised that the planets move around the sun not in circular orbits, but in elliptical ones. Together with his other laws of planetary motion, this allowed him to create a model of the solar system that was a huge improvement over Copernicus' original system. Galileo's main contributions to the acceptance of the heliocentric system were his mechanics and the observations he made with his telescope. Using a primitive notion of inertia, Galileo could explain why rocks dropped from a tower fall straight down even if the earth rotates. His observations of the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus and the spots on the moon all helped to discredit the Aristotelian philosophy and the Ptolemaic theory of the solar system. Through their combined discoveries, the heliocentric system gained more and more support, and at the end of the 17th century it was generally accepted by astronomers.

Both Kepler's laws of planetary motion and Galileo's mechanics culminated in the work of Isaac Newton. His laws of motion were to be the solid foundation of mechanics; his law of universal gravitation combined terrestrial and celestial mechanics into one great system that seemed to be able to describe the whole world in mathematical formulae.

Not only astronomy and mechanics were greatly changed. Optics, for instance, was revolutionised by people like Robert Hooke, Christiaan Huygens and, once again, Isaac Newton, who developed mathematical theories of light as either waves (Huygens) or particles (Newton). Similar developments could be seen in chemistry, biology and other sciences.

Experimental developments

The development of telescopes by Galileo and others greatly expanded the accuracy and range of celestial observations. The emerging technology of the microscope brought the world of the very small within reach of the human observer, although it would take an additional two centuries before the instrument was perfected. Another notable invention was the air-pump, extensively used by Robert Boyle and others.

Methodological developments

The most important changes were in the way that science was done. Three main developments can be identified:


Aristotle recognised four kinds of causes, of which the most important was the 'final cause'. The final cause was the aim or goal of something. Thus, the final cause of rain was to let plants grow. Until the scientific revolution, it was very natural to see such goals in nature. The world was inhabited by angels and demons, spirits and souls, occult powers and mystical principles. Scientists spoke about the 'soul of a magnet' as easily as they spoke about its velocity.

The rise of the so-called 'mechanical philosophy' put a stop to this. The mechanists, of whom the most important one was Rene Descartes, rejected all goals, emotion and intelligence in nature. In this modern view, the world consisted of matter moving in accordance with the laws of physics. Where nature had previously been imagined to be like a living entity, the scientific revolution viewed nature as following natural, physical laws.


Aristotelian science had been qualitative, not quantitative. Astronomy had always been quantitative, of course, but it was seen as a lower discipline, subjected to physics. In physics, mathematics wasn't used. And why should it? As Aristotle had pointed out, physics seemed to be about changing objects with a reality of their own, whereas mathematics seemed to be about unchanging objects without a reality of their own. What could they have to do with each other?

During the scientific revolution, the status of mathematics was radically changed, and at the end of the 17th century physics was thoroughly mathematised. The evident successes of Galileo and other mathematically inclined physicists and the growing tendency to realistically interpret mathematical models like the Copernican system were among the key factors.


"Look at the world, but don't experiment!," such was the view of the natural philosophers before the scientific revolution. Nature, it was thought, should be looked at as it worked on its own. If one did an experiment, one was putting nature in 'unnatural' circumstances, and hence the results of an experiment would not agree with the true way nature worked.

Under the influence of philosophers like Francis Bacon, an empirical tradition was developed in the 17th century. The Aristotelian belief of natural and artificial circumstances was abandoned, and a research tradition of systematic experimentation was slowly accepted throughout the scientific community.

At the end of the scientific revolution the organic, quantitative world of book-reading philosophers had been changed into a mechanical, mathematical world to be known through experimental research. Though it is certainly not true that Newtonian science was like modern science in all respects, it closely resembled ours in many ways - much more so than the Aristotelian science of a century earlier.

Literary criticisms

A recent trend in literary theory, "Cultural materialism" denies that there was a scientific revolution, or that if a revolution occured, it denies that it was important. Literary critics who hold this point of view have a unqiue, and many would claim, mistaken, definition of what the term "revolution" means. These literary critics hold that if a scientific revolution did not occur instantaneously, and without historical precedent, then by definition it cannot be a revolution, and can only be an evolution. If the scientific revolution was only an evolution, then it must have little or no importance.

The scientific revolution, as a change in theoretical outlook, is normally identified as a four step process (this is not true of 'scientific practice' which is much less clearly definable historically).

Firstly, Galileo is seen as the father of "theoretical experimentalism", by legitimising "observation, as opposed to mere reason, as a route to authentic knowledge" by presenting the observational process in a form which appears to have the rigour of the "unimpeachable" Euclidean proof, in his "falling bodies experiments".

There is, however, an objective difficulty with this description: Gallileo in Two New Sciences described physical experiments, and gave an analysis in Euclidean terms; i.e., in terms of the mathematics of the time. Whether or not the Euclidean demonstrations are valid and umimpeachable, their applicability rests on the correctness of the experimental results, which Galileo invites others to try.

Secondly (but not subsequent to, or in direct conjunction with Galileo) Francis Bacon projects (what we would now think of as) the Galilean "experimental truth revealing process" onto the entire map of the natural universe, setting forth an agenda for every natural phenomenon then known, to be subjected to experimental scrutiny.

Third, Robert Boyle sets about transforming Galileo's "idealised" thought experiment as characterised by Galileo's "falling bodies experiments" into a practical method for ensuring that the observational process accumulates a body of knowledge which is public, thorough and "self-correcting" by the practice of publication, replication and review of scientific experiments.

However, the modern literary critics who present Galileo's work as idealised thought experiments are overlooking work in history of science since the 1960s. Though it was once claimed (in particular by Koyré) that the inclined-plane experiments must have been merely thought experiments because accurate time measurements were not possible, Galileo's methods have been replicated with excellent agreement in results (Settle, 1961). Analyses of Galileo's experimental notebooks (e.g., Drake, 1982; cf. [1]) in the 1970s also point to actual experiments. Hence, this step in the description of the revolution must be re-examined from the beginning.

Fourth, Newton produces the first widely read works which purport to address the most significant fundamental natural processes with "Boylean rigour".

Although cultural materialism doesn't necessarily dismiss the main thrust of these claims, it does not accept that they fully account for the changes which are attributed to them, or that they reflect the nature or the even points in time when the relevant changes occured. If Boyle's "public science" model coexisted with "pre-scientific" disciplines, then the "revolution" was "romanticised" by their biographers, who wished to paint a picture of the 'new wisdom' being adopted at the same time as the abandonment of the "wicked, secretive and pagan" practices of the pre-scientific "mystics".

Most historians of science dispute this view; all revolutions (scientific, social, politicial, historical) are non-instantaneous; all revolutions are always based on a number of historical precedents. Even the revolutionary development of Quantum mechanics in the early 20th century depended on a number of evolutionary steps, each based on findings from previous experiments. Thus, denying that the scientific revolution took place, or was of great importance, due to its evolutionary nature is facile. Given this view, one must deny that all revolutions of any sort have ever taken place.



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Literary criticism